“Get the fuck outta here!” yells Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike from his Atlanta home. “That’s amazing!” His New York-based musical partner El-P jokes, “Suck our fucking dicks, Grammys!”, the awards ceremony having recently snubbed the rap duo’s extraordinary album ‘RTJ4’. We’ve just broken the news, via video call – which you can watch above – that the record has been crowned NME’s Album of Year 2020.
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And how: these 11 tracks are a potent mix of searing truths, booming production and RTJ’s sensational punchlines (on the stuttering ‘out of sight’, Mike deadpans: “You’re a common cold and my flows are cancerous”). This politically charged record is the sound of a year defined not just by the coronavirus pandemic, but by the renewed energy around the Black Lives Matter movement and a desire to resist the status quo.
So much of ‘RTJ4’ speaks directly to 2020. On the taut ‘JU$T’, Rage Against The Machine’s Zach de la Rocha tears through the Pharrell-penned line “look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar”; the stunning ‘walking in the snow’ sees Mike foreshadow the death of George Floyd, whose tragic killing precipitated a summer of BLM protests; and on ‘pulling the pin’, R&B legend Mavis Staples resolves that enough is enough: “There’s a grenade in my heart and the pin is in their palm.” It’s surprising, then, that ‘RTJ4’ was actually recorded in 2019.
“As an artist you’re sensitive to the vibrations that are happening,” Mike says of Run The Jewels’ perceptiveness. “You’re no different than a deer in the forest that hears a hunter. You don’t know exactly what you heard, but you’re like, ‘Something’s strange – the forest doesn’t usually make that fucking noise.’ As artists, you have that intuition.”
And for every heartbreaking moment, ‘RTJ4’ offers a sense of forward motion, of defiance in the face of bigotry and fear: it’s no accident that Mike’s final lyric on the album is: “last words to the firing squad was, ‘Fuck you too’.”
The Album of the Year 2020 is one you can get behind, one that invites you along to the protest. It’s bottled energy, rage and, ultimately, optimism. “We’re always trying to have people walk away from our records not feeling defeated,” El-P says. “It means a lot when people say that’s the effect it has on them. It makes you stand up a little bit.”
– Run The Jewels’ ‘RTJ4’ is out now